The Torture Mentality, Part 4

It’s impossible to keep up with the ever-creative arguments of torture apologists, but I’m trying. For the moment, let me step back from the cornucopia of metastasizing specific torture apologies and focus for a moment more on the larger picture.

Have you ever wondered how Dick Cheney can be a credible voice on torture? Can you imagine Cheney (or the architect of any program of at best dubious legality) saying, “Well, our intentions were certainly good, but nothing worthwhile came out of it. Definitely was worth a try though.” Is there any way on earth Dick Cheney would ever say that? Of course not, and therefore, how can anyone take him seriously as the chief advocate for the illegal program he himself designed? We might equally expect George Bush to say, “Boy, the war in Iraq has really been a completely unnecessary catastrophe. Oops.”

When a car salesman working on commission tells us we’re going to love driving this car, we know to be skeptical because his opinion is not disinterested. Why does this sort of common sense evaporate when the salesman is a politician, and with far more on the line than the car salesman?

Why is it that the people who argue for torture have no experience with interrogations, while the most experienced are against it? Read this new article from Time magazine. Between them, Matthew Alexander and Ali Soufan have interrogated or supervised the interrogations of hundreds of war on terror prisoners. Both say torture doesn’t work and that in fact it has cost thousands of American lives. Why are apologists so quick to dismiss as irrelevant the the experience of men like these in favor of their own evidence-free opinions?


You might have seen recently that rightwing talkshow host Eric “Mancow” Muller volunteered to be waterboarded so he could demonstrate graphically that waterboarding isn’t torture. Here’s his conclusion, unsurprising to anyone but himself. And bear in mind, this result was achieved in six seconds in the safest, most controlled, most friendly circumstances possible.

So: why not a torture Turing Test? If Liz Cheney can continue to maintain that Waterboarding Isn’t Torture even while being waterboarded, she would be infinitely more persuasive. I wonder why Cheney the elder and Cheney the younger, and so many other apologists with so much on the line, refuse to make this extremely persuasive point? After all, they say waterboarding causes no permanent harm. It’s just a dunk in the water, a no brainer, no big deal at all. So why not submit to an easy dunk and demonstrate powerfully and persuasively and once and for all for everyone to see that waterboarding isn’t torture? Like Mancow did.

Given how strongly motivated some people are to believe in spite of glaring evidence to the contrary that We Do Not Torture, it might not help to repeat this. But still: waterboarding is hardly the only torture technique that was permitted or engaged in under the Bush/Cheney program. The UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading Treatment, signed by Ronald Reagan and ratified by the Senate, binds the US not just to not torture, but also not to engage in cruel, inhuman, or other degrading treatment. It specifically prohibits all exceptions.

But you never hear about the law from torture apogists. Instead, they want to make it all about theory: “What would you do if you had to torture someone to save a city? To save a loved one? Can you absolutely say that under all circumstances torture never, ever justified?”

Imagine you’re a cop. You come across a dead body with a bullet hole in the forehead, and there’s a guy standing over the corpse holding a smoking gun. You want to arrest the guy with the gun, and your partner says, “Hang on a minute there, pard. Can you honestly say that killing is never, ever justified?” This is exactly what torture apologists are doing in the face of actual laws and actual facts demonstrating that those laws were violated.

Really, I get so tired of the ridiculous and irrelevant question, “But wouldn’t you torture someone if you thought it could save a loved one?” This is simply an argument for setting policy according to what we would do if we were out of minds with fear, rage, and desperation. How can any rational person believe that policy so devised would be in our interests? What are our rational minds for, if we’re so eager to surrender them in advance?

The real question here is: if someone chained your stripped and hooded wife or daughter to the ceiling so she couldn’t sleep for a week and the skin on her legs were nearly split with edema, and repeatedly smashed her into the wall, and left her lying in her own urine and excrement, and then waterboarded her again and again and again and again, would you dismiss it all as no worse than a bunch of fraternity pranks, just some “enhanced interrogation procedures?” Or would you recognize it as torture?

It amazes me, the awesome powers we’ve come to attribute to terrorist losers and misfits. Not only can they dissolve the concrete walls of America’s most fortress-like supermax prisons, they’re also impervious to the most sophisticated interrogation techniques. You’d think that people who had signed up for a cause as looney as worldwide jihad, who were such true believers that they were willing to blow themselves up along with thousands of innocents in the service of the cause to which someone recruited them, must by definition be reasonably amenable to psychological manipulation. They can be talked into blowing themselves up, but not into giving up information? When did we come to have so little confidence in ourselves that we started to view these cretins as more clever than we are?

I get a lot of mail from people arguing that we should torture terrorists (never terror suspects; after all, if the government says someone is a terrorist, he’s a terrorist, because the government has never been wrong about such a thing ever). They’re evil, they deserve it, blah blah blah. Even if “they deserved it” could magically render torture legal or otherwise desirable, shouldn’t we take a step back and carefully examine our real motivations here? If we really, really want to torture these evildoers because they deserve it, is it possible we’ll also want to retroactively invent other, more rational-seeming, respectable reasons to justify the underlying bestial desire? When you really, really want to do something, you start to look for reasons. If you can’t find real ones, you might start to invent them. Rational people are aware of this dynamic and take steps to guard against it. Really motivated people don’t want to be aware of the dynamic and don’t want to guard against it — they just want to do what they want to do.

It’s fascinating to watch the people who argue that torture doesn’t matter because people who want to kill us are going to want to kill us anyway. After all, The Terrorists tried to blow up the World Trade Center in 1993, before we started torturing, that kind of thing. And yet these same people also say Obama must never, ever release the new photos of prisoner abuse, lest they inflame anger against us.

Although maybe these photos would cause some inflammation. Some of them are said to depict prisoners being raped.

Okay, here are a few more specific pro-torture arguments. I’m numbering them to make it easier to reference them when I get repetitive pro-torture email.

1. “I’d take your criticism of the US more seriously if you’d also criticize al Qaeda. All we do is rough tactics; they cut people’s heads off. Doesn’t that bother you?”

This is a really weird argument in so many ways — call it the Fairness Doctrine for Terrorist Criticism — but it’s out there so let’s address it.

First, I wonder, does it only apply to terrorists and torture? Or does the equal time theory apply to other governments and other issues, too? “Before criticizing the US government for its approach to health care, you must provide equal time for criticism of the UK approach.”

Look, I’m a US citizen, so naturally I tend to focus on the actions of my government. What my government does affects me, and because we’re a democracy, there’s at least a theoretical chance my criticism will have some effect. By contrast, somehow I don’t think US citizens criticizing al Qaeda behavior is likely to reach the appropriate al Qaeda ombudsman. It might also be that Americans are more critical of their own government than we are of al Qaeda because we hold our government to a slightly higher standard. Are we mistaken in doing so?

Another reason Americans might not spend a lot of time criticizing al Qaeda is because there’s no vocal contingent of Americans applauding al Qaeda’s barbarism. By contrast, there’s a large and vocal segment of the US population applauding torture, and their applause requires a response. So tell you what: when Fox news starts apologizing for and excusing al Qaeda’s mass murder, you can count on me to publicly manifest my outrage.

2. “The Democratic party’s civil libertarians seem to believe that several medium-sized US cities would be a reasonable price to pay for insisting on ordinary criminal trials for terrorist suspects.” via Clive Crook.

There’s so much wrong with this statement it’s embarrassing just to read it. An ordinary criminal trial for terrorists will cause the destruction of several medium-sized US cities? What is the connection between one and the other? Which terrorists? Which cities? Seriously, if we try terrorists in civilian courts, we will lose cities?

If Crook rephrases, I’ll have another crack. As it is, it’s very hard to know what he’s talking about.

3. “We’re faced with a ruthless foe, so we have to be at least equally ruthless.”

I think I saw this one as a deep thought on Talking Points Memo: If torture so great, why have all the countries that used it — Imperial Japan, Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union — been defeated by the US?

And then there was Jesse Ventua on The View: If waterboarding etc isn’t torture, why do we not use it more broadly — on domestic criminal suspects, for example?

Here’s one you hear a lot. “How can it be torture when we do it to our own people in military training?”

I don’t know. How can it be rape when married couples do the same thing all the time at home? How can it be slavery when people do the same thing for wages?

And by the way, it’s *not* just what we did to our own people. Dozens of prisoners were tortured to death (that is, murdered). As far as I know, the military doesn’t torture soldiers to death as part of their training. Nor, for that matter, does it chain them to the ceiling for a week etc. before waterboarding them 183 times.

5. “You can’t call it torture because some people say it’s not.”

I hereby apologize to anyone I might have misled by referring to the “Holocaust.” Or for using without qualification the phrase, “Man walks on the moon.” Or for suggesting that “Shakespeare” wrote all those plays and sonnets.

6. Here’s a good one from Lindsey Graham: torture has been around for five hundred years because it works.

Hmmm… works at what? For extracting the false confessions torturers want to hear, it’s been brilliant, no doubt.

Personally, I think torture has been around for a long time because people like doing it. What’s Senator Graham’s explanation for, say, oral sex? That’s been around for a long time, too.

7. “Bush and Cheney kept the country safe. At least you can say that.”

Nope. Not even close. Anyway, even if this outrageous whopper were true, the same is true of Bill Clinton, who kept the country safe from the February 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.

Personally, I think my books are what’s kept the country safe. I sold the first one in late September, 2001, and have been writing about one a year ever since. Surely this can’t be a coincidence.

Kept the country safe? The real bill for what they’ve done has yet to be presented.

I guarantee I’m going to get comments to this post from apologists who will simply repeat the usual torture hypotheticals while continuing their embarrassing, damning silence on the law and the facts of its violation. If you’re one of the people who’s going to take that route, could you just acknowledge this paragraph as evidence suggesting you at least glanced at the post before responding to it? Thanks.